It’s always good to have breakfast with friends, no? Well … no, not always. Donald Trump launched a blistering rhetorical attack on Germany at a breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, calling it “a captive of Russia” thanks to a new gas pipeline for Russian imports. Trump also blasted other NATO members for failing to ramp up their spending on shared defense, a charge which a clearly shaken Stoltenberg acknowledged, but saved most of his ire for Angela Merkel:
President Trump: "Germany is a captive of Russia."
Trump and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg discuss plans for the summit before a bilateral breakfast in Brussels. pic.twitter.com/DsT8UfxGvg
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 11, 2018
“Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in a fiery on-camera exchange that was among the harshest in the history of the post-World War II alliance.
“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.
Trump has complained bitterly about Europe’s lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations were taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they were offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.
A favorite target of his ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and is beginning construction on a second natural gas pipeline to Russia. Germany and other European NATO partners argue, however, that they have boosted contributions to the military alliance and plan to kick in even more in coming years.
Before we get too deeply into the wisdom of this confrontation, what about the accuracy? Turns out Trump’s not wrong about the level of Russian imports expected by Germany from its new Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The BBC confirms that Trump’s estimation is pretty much in line with analyst expectations:
At a breakfast meeting in Brussels with Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg, the US leader said: “Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they will be getting from 60% to 70% of their energy from Russia, and a new pipeline, and you tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not and I think it’s a very bad thing for Nato.”
The latest official EU figure for imports of Russian gas to Germany is between 50% and 75% (in an earlier version of this story, the figure was given incorrectly as 50.75%).
Germany has given political support for a new Baltic Sea pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which will increase the flow of Russian gas to EU states. The project has been sharply criticised by Poland and others.
Trump’s point about the questionable ties between Russia and Germany is worth noting, too. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder got a golden parachute from public service from Putin-controlled Gazprom years ago, and that seems to be paying off with friendly policies in Berlin. Trump also got some support back home from Sen. Tom Cotton on Nord Stream 2. Cotton accuses Germany of wanting to eat its gas-pipeline cake and have NATO and EU too:
Nord Stream 2 strikes at heart of NATO unity. The pipeline gets cheap Russian gas to Germany while bypassing smaller Eastern European nations, allowing Russia to pressure them while Germany is held harmless. No amount of preening in Berlin will cover this nakedly selfish policy.
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) July 11, 2018
Clearly this is a serious issue, but it’s the kind of disagreement between allies that usually get hashed out in less public venues. Nord Stream 2 might strike at the heart of NATO unity, but displays such as these call it into question entirely. In this case, perception matters — and could cost a lot of lives if mishandled. NATO’s enemies could reasonably conclude from this eruption that dissent at NATO is high enough that the Article V mutual-defense clause may no longer be operable. That’s the kind of perception that could precipitate conflict. A united public front saves lives and prevents war, and anything else is usually a bad idea. This kind of angry public confrontation is a very bad idea, no matter how justified it might be.
On that point, the timing is curious indeed. This comes on the eve of Donald Trump’s summit with the same Vladimir Putin who’s selling Germany the natural gas, a meeting with the express purpose of improving relations between the US and Russia. Presumably, such warmer relations would eventually relieve the sanctions on trade between the two nations, which means we’d also be putting billions of dollars in Russia’s pockets. As Merkel noted, Europe traded with Russia even during the Cold War, and the US does now.
While Nord Stream 2 might indeed be problematic for NATO-EU unity, Trump’s friendly overtures to Putin raise their own issues, especially while Putin still occupies Crimea and a large amount of Ukraine, too. The Baltic States do not share Trump’s enthusiasm for a friendlier relationship from the man who’s been fomenting ethnic unrest as an excuse for military intervention along the Russian frontier. Barking at NATO while embracing the Russian strongman who has made clear that he wants the old empire back is not just confusing, it’s downright alarming.
Update: Doesn’t this message from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sound a little contradictory?
.@NATO is the most successful alliance in history. All #NATO allies have committed to extending this success through increased defense spending, deterrence and defense, and fighting terrorism. Weakness provokes; strength and cohesion protects. This remains our bedrock belief. pic.twitter.com/zDmTVZkEgp
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 11, 2018
That was precisely my point. Weakness and division provoke, which is why you have these fights behind closed doors.